Military Intervention and Democracy: A Tenuous Relationship?

Can democracy be successfully imposed through force? This perennial question has been long discussed in academia, foreign policy insitutes and within governments.  Often overlooked is the fact that the success of foreign military intervention in instilling “quintessential” democratic values is strongly dependent on existing local political, social and economic conditions.

With increasing pressure on the ongoing withdrawal of troops from war-ridden Afghanistan, questions are raised about the degree to which the US-led coalition succeeded in its objective of supporting democracy and “advancing liberty …as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear” in the words of former President George W. Bush himself (Tenet 4 of the ‘Bush Doctrine’). Although there has been a degree of success in promoting democracy and political integrity, there appears to be no end to the insurgency plaguing the country.

Conversely, the post-World War II Allied foreign military intervention in Japan and West Germany are retrospectively considered relatively successful examples of democratization; whereby militarist regimes were transformed into paragons of democracy. Focusing on Imperialist Japan is an interesting comparative case, as it was also a non-Western Liberalist culture, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It is, however, clear that many of Japan’s socio-economic conditions favoured a viable democracy unlike in the latter two countries.

Contrary to Afghanistan, Japan had been a great, industrialised power prior to World War II and retained human and social capital through skilled managers and networks. In contrast, Afghanistan has never attained this level of development, having had its basic infrastructure demolished following the 1979 Soviet Invasion and the ensuing civil war; leaving it dependent on foreign aid; and thus undermining any attempts towards creating a self-sufficient and sovereign democracy. To highlight this difference, Japan’s Gross National Product (GNP) per capita at the time of democracy’s inauguration in 1952 was $1768, whereas Afghanistan’s GNP per capita is merely $250.

Unlike the ethnically homogeneous society of Post WWII Japan, which led to a fair degree of social solidarity and a significant consensus about national identity, Afghanistan is amongst the most culturally heterogeneous societies in the world. With 14 major ethnic groups, and within them a multitude of tribal groups, there are 32 languages being spoken in Afghanistan alone. As the philosopher John Stuart Mill stated, “among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion necessary to the working of representative government” can rarely exist. This is further compounded by a geographical divide with extensive mountainous regions and desert resulting in the development of separate identities, which obfuscate a centralized democratic system from being effectively implemented.  Similarly in post-2003 Iraq, sectarian violence has hindered the progress of coalition attempts at democracy building; many would argue that intervention in fact exacerbated any existing ethnic rivalries, as some US policy makers conflated the former Ba’athist party with the entire Shia sect, leading to its blanket political exclusion and thus fuelling revenge attacks.  With regards to the integration of minorities within a democracy, a key problem was the fact that over half of Iraq’s Christian population in fact fled the country in the aftermath of the intervention and sectarian violence. Moreover, education is another key prerequisite for a viable democracy, but it has been destabilized by the war; attendance rates at educational institutions diminished significantly in the security conundrum that has emerged since 2003, further complicated by the issue of economic sanctions and the previous Gulf War (in 1990, UNESCO states that primary school Gross Enrollment rate was 100%).

Returning to the case of Japan, despite its geopolitical significance historically, it was notoriously poor in natural resources, giving the reformers – Americans and Japanese alike – a brief breathing space in which to push their ambitious agendas without being hammered by any vested economic interests.

Having compared these case studies across eras, empirical records suggest that for democracy-building to truly thrive in the long term, military intervention is not the remedy.  One has to carefully consider the country’s conflicting ethnic demographics, cultural sensitivities and its basic socio-economic conditions first, which are fundamental issues to address if the targeted country is to sustain stability, a sovereign, pluralistic democracy, and uphold viable democratic institutions.

Abir Qazilbash, Intern at Albany Associates

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